Nobody has iteasier, from a physical point of view, than baseball's bit player, the pinchhitter. In this rarefied, specialized, languid line of work, a man is obligedto do little more than swing his bat a couple of times every other day or so.Does this mean that pinch hitters are a contented class? Not at all. "I saynobody has it tougher anywhere," said a ferocious New York Yankee type theother day, "and anybody wanting to discuss it further, let him step rightup." Speaking is John ("I participate in little ways") Blanchard,and he's the best pinch hitter in the American League (five pinch homers lastseason—but only one measly single so far this one). And other pinch hitterscall their job the roughest, meanest, most exasperating in the whole game. Theycan recite a list of occupational liabilities longer than a Sunday doubleheader in Philadelphia, too.
Pinch hitters,for example, are always thrown into the fray cold, stiff and emotionallyflat—and are expected to produce. The Lord only knows how pinch hitters staysharp. They seldom get to play out the balance of the game and they always gethurry-up bullying around the batting cage by the starters. With so littleexercise, pinch hitters grow breathless, turgid and square-shaped if they don'twatch out. ("I enjoy a beer. I enjoy two beers. Or three beers. But I'vehad lo cut it out," says Detroit's leading pinch hitter, Vic Wertz.)Finally, when the cold pinch hitter is called in, chances are his team is in asorrowful bind. But the enemy pitcher is warmed up, probably a few runs aheadand not about to act nice. No wonder the New York Mets' Richie Ashburn, anow-and-then pinch hitter, says, "You can have it. I no more than get upoff the bench than I'm two strikes behind." Wertz can shrug it all off,saying, "You don't have to do much, but you do have to dosomething."
Then why do pinchhitters put up with the gaff? Because there is nothing that puts a song in aman's heart quicker than getting a hit when his team needs it most. How wouldyou have felt, let's say, if you had been John Blanchard and had just hit apinch home run in the third and vital game of the 1961 World Series, with twoouts in the eighth, tying the score, pretty much winning the game and wowingeverybody there? Pretty smug is how. (On the other hand, you'd have feltawfully low-down if you had popped out in the first game, as Cincinnati's JerryLynch did. Lynch is the best pinch hitter in both leagues, which maybe provessomething about the occupation's ups and downs.)
Dreamy stuff isfine, as far as it goes, but pinch-hitting offers rewards that go further. Forsomebody like Jerry Lynch, a good year of pinches can get you more scratch. Forplayers like Boston's Dave Philley and Detroit's Wertz, a knack and a nerve forpinch-hitting can keep you employed when old age and heavy feet have just aboutended your career. And for all pinch hitters there is the inner knowledge thatthey, after all, can sometimes win the game the other nine guys have botched.Last year Lynch won more games with pinch hits than the Reds won the pennantby. It was Jerry (Jerry can claim) who put the team in the Series.
Pinch-hittingused to be an excuse to keep kindly old ballplayers playing, but nowadays thereare plenty of better reasons why teams carry and use these reservists. Theprimary reasons, to be sure, arc to win nigh-lost games and to make opposingpitchers feel rotten, as Brooklyn's Cookie Lavagetto so neatly did with aninth-inning two-out double in the 1947 World Series, breaking up Floyd Bevens'Yankee no-hitter. Besides squeezing winning runs from tight situations,ever-ready pinch hitters are also used when the bases are loaded, say, and theupcoming batter is of the nervous, lump-in-the-throat variety.
"What I wantin a pinch," says Detroit Manager Bob Scheffing, "is someone who canstart a rally or keep one going. I plain don't care if they walk, hit or gethit, as long as they get on base." He means somebody like Pittsburgh'sSmokey Burgess. "You can wake that Smokey up on Christmas morning,"Birdie Tebbetts has said, "and he'll get you two for four."
Pinch hitters arehandy, too, if their speed afoot can shorten the odds on a double play, or ifthe scheduled batter is notably inefficient against, for example, a sidearmpitcher. Most commonly, pinch hitters are used when the pitcher is of oppositehandedness. Fearsome weapons indeed are the likes of Boston's Dave Philley andSt. Louis' Red Schoendienst, who not only can pinch-hit, but can do it fromeither side of the plate.
"My idea of apinch hitter was Johnny Mize," says Casey Stengel. A sort of specialist'sspecialist, Mize was one of the best right, left, forward and backward pinchhitters baseball has ever known. Fat, fortyish and slow, Mize could come up forthe Yankees with a man on third and willfully, almost unerringly, drive him inwith a high fly. With a man on first, Mize simply went for the home run.
Somedaysomebody's got to catalog the assorted mystiques of pinch-hitting. Jerry Lynch,like Blanchard, is strung higher than the outfield lights, and follows the gamewith an intense how-does-this-figure-to-affect-me curiosity. The palms of VicWertz begin to sweat along about the fifth inning, while the Dodgers' Lee Wallssits there imagining himself already at bat. (Walls, it's safe to assume,sweats too; only all over. To keep himself loose he customarily wears longJohns, turtleneck sweater, wind-breaker and gloves.)
Peanuts Lowrey,now a Philadelphia coach, began his pinch-hit career with the Chicago Cubs,hated it, later came to approach his mission with devotion and self-assurance.He never thought for an instant that he wouldn't get a hit until he didn't.Says Peanuts, "I knew just how hard my job was, which was plenty. 1 wassupposed to get a hit; the pitcher was supposed to get me out. One of us wasbound to win." Blanchard lacks Lowrey's dispassion. "I pray all the wayto the plate, and then hope like the devil I connect," he says. DavePhilley, a facile sort, claims he has mastered the ability to bear down and torelax at the same time, if you can imagine. Philley's manager, Mike Higgins,wants him to come off the bench swinging, and most pinch hitters think this issound advice. "You've got only one chance," says Blanchard, "so youcan't take the time to be giving the pitches the once-over-lightly." Deniedthis examination, many pinch hitters quiz their teammates on what the pitcheris throwing most, and go to bat set for it. Still, Smokey Burgess and VicWertz, when pinch-hitting, will compulsively go for the first pitch; thepitchers know it and feed them low. Says Burgess, "you're either going tohit it or not hit it—simple."
It would be aparadox in some endeavors (arithmetic, for example), but pinch hitters claimthey are only as good as the pressure is great. "Who cares what happens ifyou're six runs behind?" says Richie Ashburn of the Mets, a team frequentlysix runs behind. But pile on the pressure and great things can be accomplished."Give me the ninth inning, with a man on, two outs and the Reds one rundown," says Lynch. "Man, I lap that up." Faint heart ne'er madepinch hit.